frontline: pope john paul II - the millennial pope

Interview with Tom Economus...He is executive director of Linkup, a national organization which he founded in 1991 for victims of clergy sexual abuse.  He also is an ordained priest in the Independent Catholic Church.

Can you tell me your story?

...I was raised in a very Catholic Greek family in the North Side of Chicago--lived right next door to the Catholic Church most of my life. And had always wanted to become a priest ever since I was a little kid.

When I was around 10 or 11 years old, my parents were in the process of a messy divorce, and my way of handling the divorce was to act out in school. As a result, the nuns and teachers, along with my parents, thought they needed to place me a different, controlled environment. And it just so happened that this priest, Father Don Murray, who was a family friend, ran a school called Skyranch for Boys. And my family thought it was in my best interest to go out there, get an education, finish school and eventually go on to college.

I think the Pope remains silent on this issue because it's very much a part of the Roman Catholic Church to not deal with sexuality. No one really wants to talk about sexual abuse, and people really don¼t want to talk about the sexual abuse of children by priests. And so it was in my going to Skyranch for Boys, in what my family had hoped would be a good, solid education for myself, that I was molested by this priest. It went on for three and a half years. And the molestation began initially with just touching and feeling. And he'd have a drink with me, and I got to smoke cigarettes with him--that was a very cool thing to do when you're a 12, 13, 14 year old kid. And there was something wonderful about him as well. He was very charismatic. And I believed him when he said that he loved me. I believed him when he said that he was going to take care of me, and that I would have a future with the Church, or with him, or wherever I wanted to go.

There is a lot of mental manipulation in the process. He would take me on fundraising events and conventions with him to raise money for the school. And he would put me on, next to him at the dais and say, 'This is a troubled child. This is a bad boy. This is a kid who's been in trouble with the law, with drugs, he comes from the streets of Chicago." And, in fact, none of that was true. I was having problems at home, my family sent me to the school, but I became the poster-child for Skyranch for Boys.

And it was usually after those events, and after he'd had one too many drinks, that I would experience the sexual abuse. And we were usually in an isolated area, in a hotel room, where I didn't have access to anyone to tell anyone--although I don't think I would have told anyone anyway. Many times when I had threatened to expose him, he would tell me, "I have legal guardianship over you. Who are the people going to believe-you or me?" And so I was manipulated into silence for seventeen years.

When I was 17 we were at a resort on an island in upper Michigan-- another fundraising event-- and he molested me that night, but that culminated into a rape, in which he raped me. And I spent the rest of the night in such fear of what had happened, underneath the secretary desk, and that's where I stayed huddled in a fetal position until the morning, in which he woke up and looked at me, and all he said was, "You need to get cleaned up. We have the benefactors coming in and you have to serve Mass." That's all he said. But that was the last time he touched me. I think he had realized the damage he had done.

He was an out-of-control alcoholic, and everybody knew it. No one did anything to stop him. I always heard the excuse, "Well, Father is in charge of fifty or sixty boys at Skyranch, he takes care of their problems, this is the only release that he has." And that was always the excuse that everybody made for him. And yet he'd done incredible damage to me and to other boys. But that particular situation was--he was very drunk and I was resisting and he held me down and raped me.

For me, at the time, I was very confused. Because on one hand, I very much loved this priest. He was very good to me, in that he took me on trips, and he bought me clothes, and he was very affectionate and very loving. And then there was this other side of him that was very violent and very brutal. But I also knew that as long as I kept quiet, then the good things that he did for me would kind of balance or outshine this horrible secret that I was keeping.

I had a lot of behavioral problems back then. I know the source of my alcoholism and drug abuse is directly related to the abuse, but also the fact that my first sexual experience was first with this priest. The first drink of alcohol I ever had was with this priest. And being a young, impressionable teenage kid, I knew it was wrong but it seemed it was okay, because Father said it was okay.

And so I remained in a state of denial about my own abuse, and tried to do normal things with other kids. I never felt like I connected. I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I was popular in school, but I knew a lot of people because I never wanted to get intimate, or get to know people. That was very frightening for me. So I would be with this group one day and another group another day, and never really connecting with anybody for fear of having to be found out, and having to keep this secret.

...Back then, I couldn't look at anyone else in the eyes. I couldn't be in another room with other boys that I knew had been abused by him, for fear that I might be abused by them--which did happen. There was just a lot of shame. A lot of feeling very dirty, and like it was my fault. You know, this was a man of God, this was a person that I grew up revering and respecting and loving, and had on this pedestal. I came from this broken home, I already had behavioral problems, I had the whole psychological makeup, in my mind, knowing there was something wrong with me. So for me along with the shame and the guilt and feeling very dirty, was the sense that I had caused this man of God to do this. He was God to me.

...While it was happening, I continued to go to church, I continued to be his altar boy, I continued to go on the fundraising events, and pretty much acted as if nothing had happened. It was after I left the school and went out on my own that I realized there was something wrong with me. And I would go to church and I would pray, and nothing would change. And so I continued to distance myself from the Church.

When I was 21 I decided I was going to go into counseling. And being raised Catholic, where would you go?--to a Catholic Church. I had entered into a counseling session with a priest in Chicago and had gone to about nine counseling sessions with him, and explained to him that I had been abused by this priest, and that I was having difficulty. I didn't know how to be intimate with someone. I didn't know if it made me homosexual. Was I heterosexual? Was I asexual? I didn't know. I was in this total state of confusion.

And on the ninth or tenth session, this priest, on that particular day, was telling me about his sexual appetite, in that he thought he was homosexual, that he had been with other men. And then he had shown me a picture of some young man who he said was 15 or 16 years old, that he said he was sexually involved with. And at that point I felt very uncomfortable and I got up and asked him if I could use the restroom. In order to get to the restroom, we were in his sitting room, which was connected to his bedroom, and the restroom was on the other side. I had to go through the bedroom to get to the restroom. When I came out of the restroom, he was standing there in a T-shirt, and just a pair of underwear. And lunged at me, and knocked me onto the bed. And started kissing me and, wanted to have sex with me. And which I continued to refuse that, he - you know, I'm not very big, and he was a pretty tall person, and he managed to hold me down ... and he was trying to force himself on me. He pulled his penis out and tried to put his penis into my mouth, and then he finally ejaculated, and when he did I was able to get away from him, and I ran out of the rectory and never returned.

(pause) It was incredible. And I'm actually just dealing with that part of the abuse right now--with my own therapy and the diocese that this happened in. I had to deal with the first abuse, and get through that five-year legal battle in order to now deal with this abuse. But it was a absolute total breach of trust and confidentiality.

Many times I'm asked why I remained silent. And a lot of it was based in shame and guilt and credibility, you know--who would believe me? Also, what factored into that was the fact that the priest that molested me the first time, Father Murray, he was killed in a plane accident in 1975, in which he was the pilot of the accident. And my younger brother, who was also molested by Murray, was the only survivor of that place accident. And so for me, he was dead. And I knew he couldn't abuse anybody, any longer. So I further remained silent as a result of, you know, how do you fight a dead man? And at that point in my life, I was 18, 19 years old, I didn't have the capacity to even know what happened to me, or to even talk about it, to come forward, to now fight somebody over it.

Can you describe the way people reacted to this priest's behavior?

I think the way in which Father Murray died in that plane accident speaks volumes to the way his life really was. He was an out-of-control alcoholic. From what I've seen of those reports from the FAA, he piloted that plane into the ground. It was almost like a suicide mission. And he killed himself and two other young men. My brother--he was mangled, thrown from the plane--was the only survivor.

Yet, everybody knew that he had a problem. The bishop knew it, the board of directors knew it, people within the industry, his foundation, they all knew that this man was out of control. And yet no one did anything to stop him or prevent him from killing himself and these boys.

And there were many opportunities for them to do that. There was a young man who shot and killed a counselor at Skyranch. There was an accident that Murray was involved in where he was the driver, and the car went off the road and two boys were killed. I mean, there were five deaths associated with this man in the way he conducted his life, and nobody stopped him. They just said, "Poor Father Murray." Nobody looked at the kids.

In early 1991, 1992, my brother and I spoke about the abuse for the very first time. And I had already been through treatment. He was in treatment, and the abuse issue was coming forward and he needed to deal with it. And it was very ironic that he approached me about the abuse, and said, "You know what happened, I know you were abused, and what are we going to do about it?" And it was out of that we filed a lawsuit and sued the Church and Skyranch for Boys, and engaged in a five-and-a-half year legal battle with them until we finally settled to our satisfaction.

When I was in the religious community and the seminary program, I spoke about my abuse to superiors and to spiritual directors, and nobody wanted to deal with it. I was told several times. "Take it to prayer, pray about it, and it'll be fine."

When I went to the bishop about the abuse, it was very interesting. He said, "We're no longer affiliated with Skyranch. And we haven't been for three years. And this is something that happened to you almost twenty years ago. There's no liability here."

And I said, "I'm not here seeking liability. I'm here seeking an apology, and an acknowledgement. I'm here because I think there are probably other victims out there that need help." And he said, "Well, we can give you counseling, if that's what you want. We'll pay for you to go to counseling, but that's all we're responsible for."

After the second abuse, it was very clear to me that I didn't belong in the Church, and I just walked away from it, again, feeling that I was the one at fault, and that there was something wrong with me. I was tainted. This priest did this to me when I was a child. Now this priest, as an adult, is doing this to me. What is it about me? And I went through about ten years of alcohol and drug abuse, and totally hating God. Because I grew up with the thinking of, 'No matter what's going on in your life, God is always there to help you. God is always there to protect you.' And yet I went to God's church for help and assistance, and nobody wanted me.

And so I thought, "If the Church doesn't want me, God doesn't want me." I just totally stayed out of that. And I called it my crazy years, because I was totally out of control with alcohol and drug abuse. I was living in California and I was on a fast track, just spiraling down until... early 1983 or 1984, I was coming home from a bar, was drunk, and three guys jumped me and beat the hell out of me. And that was the beginning of my bottoming out, when I knew I had to do something or I was going to die. And I started to go to therapy and into recovery to see if I had life left.

And so it was through my therapy and recovery process that I began to realize I have a sense of spirituality within me....that it was my responsibility to develop my own sense of spirituality...

So I went back to the Roman Catholic Church, thinking that I was in a good place to develop my sense of spirituality and to give my life over to the Church as a priest. And I kind of laugh at what actually happened--I was too healthy when I went back to the Church, because I saw too many things, too many inconsistencies, too many contradictions. A lot of people in pain, and hurting, and nobody seemed to care. And yet, I was expected to--if I wanted to become a priest in the Roman-Catholic church--to buy into that, and for me it was like going ten steps backwards. It was like giving up everything that I had just healed form, and returning...

In the seminary program, I remember the first day we went to classes, I felt like I was at a meat market, because everybody checked you out. But it wasn't like, "Hi, how are you?"It was like, (flirty) "Hi, how are you?" People were checking you out, scanning you over. It was the most uncomfortable feeling. But I thought it was me, at the time. And as I got into the program, I realized that there were people that were both heterosexually and homosexually sexually active. There were people that lived in our house that were accused of sexual abuse of children. There were people in the house that had very obvious, apparent alcohol problems. There were two people in our house that had very apparent eating disorders and were very much overweight.

And all of a sudden I was in the middle of all of these people, and the expectation was that I was to hug these people in prayer every day, and I was to love them as my brothers, and continue with my studies. And not to be concerned with what they were doing. We had separate group meetings, and I would say, "Well, I'm having a problem with Brother So-and-so, or Brother So-and-so". And that was always met with, "Well, then you need to bring that to their attention. Not here. If you have a problem, you go talk with them". So the whole thing was dysfunctional.

How did it happen that, eventually, you became a priest?

As I was continuing my healing journey, I found myself at a yoga retreat center in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. And when I drove up to this place, it looked just like an old Catholic building. This building actually had been a Jesuit seminary at one time, and they had sold it to this yoga group. And it was at this retreat center that I had met five bishops. And we were all in the same support group together. And we had to go around and identify ourselves, titles, and say a little bit about who we were. And I was fascinated with these five bishops, because they claimed that they were Independent Catholic bishops, and that was something that I'd never heard before. And after our support group I approached them, and said, "What is this Independent Catholic Church? I've never heard that. I was raised Catholic, I'm just leaving the seminary program, and I've never heard this before". And so they put me onto a whole lot of Church research books, and I began to dialogue with them.

And what the Independent Catholic Church is, again, it's almost 900 years old, but it's 200 years old in its official formation. And the Independent Catholic Church is a group of bishops, priests, nuns, lay people that were Roman Catholic, that no longer adhere to the Christian tenets of the Roman Catholic Church or to the Pope. And they are independent-minded people that want to continue to have the seven sacraments, want to continue Catholic theology, but don't want to be weighted down with issues such as the abortion issue, married priests, women at the altar. And so they're very liberal in that thinking.

I checked them out for about a year and a half, and told them where I was coming from about my abuse issue, how no one wanted to deal with it. And one bishop from Toronto kind of adopted me and said, "You have a raw vocation that you need to develop. I'm here to mentor with you if you want to go to the next level.' And I did that, which was result of my being ordained into the Independent Catholic Church, and that's where I now minister to.

...When I left the church officially for the Independent Catholic Church, the only way I can explain that is, it felt like a death process. I remember feeling the same way when my father had passed away. It was so important to me, in my family's life, such a part of who I was, that I had to go through this death process in order to get through the other side and find my own sense of spirituality. I know I would've made a great priest in the Roman Catholic Church, but they didn't want me.

Why didn't the Roman Catholic Church want you?

One, I had become an advocate for victims of clergy sexual abuse and I was forcing the issue. I was forcing bishops and priests to look at what has happened to these children.

...I was told when I was in the seminary program that if I continued to talk about my abuse, and continued to push the envelope regarding my abuse, then I would never be ordained. And I brought that to my spiritual director a number of times, and the spiritual director's response was, "You need to deal with this. Take it to prayer, and everything will be fine." But I was clearly told that if I continued to talk about my sexual abuse, that the chances of my being ordained were very slim, if at all.

The second reason why I don't believe they wanted me is, they don't have ... the sense of spirituality that I now have. And I knew that back then. Their sense of spirituality was to stand up, sit down, kneel, listen to the priest, and then go away. And what I found very upsetting through my therapy, and through my recovery process, was that we were groomed by the Roman Catholic Church's children to give our spiritual power over to the priest, to the bishop, to the cardinal, to the pope. And our only responsibility with regard to spirituality was to check in, for one hour, of one week, to see what they're doing with our sense of spirituality. And that just didn't fit for me.

And what about your feelings concerning faith, God?

It took me a long time to actually say the words that I hated God, but I did. And it's a raw emotion that I had. I felt very guilty about it, very emotional about it, very saddened. I mean, how do you hate God? And yet I did hate God. Because I asked the same question Holocaust victims asked: Where was God? Where was God when these two priests were molesting me? Where was God when I was being molested by these other boys at the school? (pause) It was very sad, in therapy, to look at the therapist, and then look into a mirror and say, "I hate God". It was like saying I hated myself. (pause) I couldn't understand how an agent of God, a person that was picked by God, to represent God, could do these horrible things to me, and to my brother. And God sanctioned these?

And so it was out of that rage, pain, that I hated God and felt very guilty about that. Which further fed into my alcoholism and my drug abuse, because if I didn't think about it, then I could numb myself.

Can you talk about the actions you took to bring clergy sexual abuse to the attention of the Pope, the Church?

It became very clear to me in the early 1990s that the Pope wasn't going to do anything regarding clergy sexual abuse. And for me, that became very real in 1993, when I attended the World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado, and the Pope was there. And it was going to culminate with the Pope's presence in Denver, to pray with some 25,000 children that had come from different parts of the world. And at that celebration I was demonstrating against the church on behalf of victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

I had collected about 2,500 letters from victims and survivors in the hopes of presenting those to the Pope's people, and let the Pope see the pain of these children, and the pain that has been inflicted by his priests. And when I presented them to his security people, they threw them on the ground, and refused to take them. So I brought them back to Chicago, and then forwarded them to the Vatican. I don't know what happened, I never got any answer on that.

But at that point it was very clear to me that the Pope was not going to deal with this issue. He was then quoted two days later in one of the newspapers saying that the clergy sexual abuse issue in the United States and in Canada is a result of the lack of morals and family values by the American people, which have created the possibility for priests to go bad. I was shocked when I saw this. And if the head of the Church is in denial about clergy sexual abuse, well then everyone underneath him is going to be in denial as well.

Two months later, the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland erupted, with several hundred victims coming forward against 40 priests and Christian Brothers. And there were calls from Israel and there were the Christian Brothers and sexual abuse down in New Zealand and Australia, and Germany, and Italy. Within a year we had heard from 28 countries about the global problem of clergy sexual abuse in the Roman-Catholic Church.

My experience having worked with victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse over the last eight years has led me to believe that 10% of the clergy population is involved in some form of sexual abuse with children. And that's come from the conversations, news media, investigations, the victims calling us... And the Pope continues to say nothing. I believe that the Pope and the Roman curia know the extent of this problem, and I believe the reason they remain silent is that they know it to be even bigger than what we know it to be.

I [also] think the Pope remains silent on this issue because it's very much a part of the Roman Catholic Church to not deal with sexuality. No one really wants to talk about sexual abuse, and people really don't want to talk about the sexual abuse of children by priests.

I was on my way to California for a business trip, and had CNN on and I saw the Pope coming down the steps of his aircraft and hugging Fidel Castro...He can hug Fidel Castro, who kills his own people, and yet the Pope won't hug a victim of clergy sexual abuse--of his own priests. And I was very disturbed by that. It just doesn't make any sense to me. And again, it makes me believe and confirms the notion that the Vatican is a political entity. And they're about power, and money, and exerting their power in the world, but they're not about the souls of their own children.

Don't individual Catholic bishops have the power to act on this?

Well, most dioceses have policies and procedures. And I look at them as public relation tools. They look good on paper, but they're not applicable anywhere in the diocese until the news media calls and says, "What is your policy and procedure?" They're also not sanctioned by Rome. One of the difficulties I've had in working with the bishops in the National Council of Catholic Bishops is the fact that they're all independent dioceses. No bishop can tell another bishop in another diocese what to do or how to run their diocese. And that's pretty much the hands-off policy that Rome has regarding clergy sexual abuse.

Now, when Rome wants to raise money every year for Peter's Pence, which is the fund for the Roman Catholic Church, he sends a letter to the parishioners and every year they give. But when it comes to policy and procedure, in dealing with clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic church, there's nothing coming from Rome on that...$850 million they've spent on trying to cover this issue up. Some 3,000 priests that have allegations, 200 priests that have been sentenced to jail.

When I talk to victims on the phone, because all the stories are the same. It's the same scenario. They went to the Church first, and the Church slammed the door in their face. And that is 95% of people who come to our organization. These victims, now that they're adults, and their families have gone to the churches, they've asked them for assistance, they've asked that the priest be taken out of ministry, there is some counseling that can be taken care of, and the Church says nothing.

I don't know how some of these bishops can actually look at themselves in the mirror every morning, knowing what they've covered up and knowing what they know about their priests molesting children. And then they take them and move them to another parish, another parish, another parish, every time they get caught they move them some place else.

We've demonstrated, we've sued them. We've gone after them--their men have been put in jail, they've been humiliated, some dioceses are almost bankrupt, and yet there's nothing that the Church has done to turn this thing around, to say that they're sorry. Their new M.O. is, litigate the ones that they have to litigate--which is about 5%--and those outside of the statute of limitations, ignore them. And that's what they do.

The Pope could make a huge difference. The man has--outside of the Red Cross--more antennas and arteries in countries, in people's lives than any government possibly could have. If I had five minutes with this Pope, I would look at him and echo the words of Golda Meier when she sat down with Anwar Sadat and said, "What took you so long?" I would follow that up with, "What are we going to do on behalf of victims and survivors? Are you ever going to hug a victim of clergy sexual abuse? Hug me! Bring me to the same Vatican steps that you've brought all of these dictators from other countries to..."

That's where I would begin a conversation with the Pope. I don't see it happening.

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